How Bluum’s finance team serves Idaho’s public charter schools
In Idaho and across the country, Bluum is best known for helping launch high quality charter schools, and ensuring that those schools have top-flight leaders and excellent facilities in which to carry out their mission.
Outside of Idaho’s charter school community, however, fewer people are aware of another, no less vital service Bluum provides to schools that require it: in-depth assistance with financial management and accounting, including budgeting, reporting, preparing for audits, and a host of back-office supports including payroll.
This assistance begins during a new school’s planning stages, and continues for as long as school leaders want or need it. What’s more, Bluum provides these services free of charge to the schools. It’s no overstatement to say this saves many schools from ruin in their early days and years.
Leading the Bluum finance team is Chief Financial Officer Marc Carignan, with decades of deep experience in the world of corporate finance, and now a leading expert in the intricacies of Idaho’s labyrinthine school finance laws and regulations.
Bluum school leaders say Carignan’s knowledge and his intuitive grasp of their needs have saved huge amounts of time, effort, and heartache. In fact, many insist, their schools might never have opened, or remained open, without the early and ongoing help from Carignan and his team.
“We worked directly with Marc on putting together all the financials that are required as part of a petition by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission,” said Marv Lasnick, a founder and board chair of the Treasure Valley Classical Academy in Fruitland.
“He was just really a great partner. I don’t see how we would have been successful without having him on board and really guiding us through that process.”
Bluum’s top-quality services on the finance and back-office side aren’t just unique to Idaho. They’re pretty much a unicorn nationally. Jim Ford, who has spent decades helping charter schools across the country with facilities financing, said nothing anywhere else compares with Bluum.
“I’ve worked all over the country. And I’ve worked with some really, really good financial and back office people as well as some that are not so good,” Ford said. “I would rank Marc and his team absolutely number one, and I’m not one to give praise lightly.”
Carignan describes the role he and his team play in humbler terms. “We’re kind of the blockers and tacklers,” he said. “We keep track of as much information as possible and we’ve done the best we can at really understanding how education funding works in Idaho, so that when we help schools put budgets together, they’re accurate, especially on the revenue side.”
Bluum CEO Terry Ryan said that providing accounting and finance services was baked into the plan from Bluum’s inception. “I always say kind of jokingly, but I mean it, that I’ve never seen anybody go to jail for academic malfeasance or malpractice, but I have seen people get into a lot of trouble because their finances were a hash. Sometimes it was good people who just didn’t know what they were doing,” Ryan said.
Ryan, whose involvement with the charter sector began in Ohio in the early 2000s, said he learned early on that school finance was critically important to any school’s success, and also of keen interest to funders.
So when Bluum began looking for a CFO, Ryan worked closely with his board member Joe Bruno – President of Building Hope in Washington DC – to cast a wide, national net far outside the education realm, looking for the best possible person to assume that role. He said four strong candidates emerged, but Carignan stood head and shoulders above the others. “Simply because of his practical experience managing complicated budgets and organizations and their finances.”
Carignan came to Bluum in 2015, after seven years as a Certified Public Accountant at a major Los Angeles firm, then 14 years working in finance, information systems and operations for several manufacturing companies. When Carignan accepted the job at Bluum, Ryan said, “it was kind of like ‘why do you want to take a step down because this is a nonprofit start-up and you’ve been working at major corporations.’”
The answer isn’t complicated, Carignan said. “I believe in the mission and the work is always interesting,” he said, in part because Idaho’s school finance law is so convoluted. “Public education accounting is complicated compared to general nonprofit accounting. It’s like being an SEC registrant versus a small restaurant.”
Leaders in Bluum network schools who work with Carignan, his deputy Kim Esterman and their team universally sing the praises of the work the finance team does for them.
Emily Bergstrom, co-founder and executive director of Cardinal Academy, a first-year Boise charter school for pregnant and parenting teens, said the school almost certainly would never have gotten off the ground without Bluum’s help every step of the way.
As part of the petition-writing process to be granted a charter, the Cardinal Academy founding team had to write a five-year budget. Bergstrom and Deborah Hedden-Nicely, her co-founder, were both career educators who had never written anything other than a household budget.
“School budgets are complicated, and having that resource to help us begin to figure out what this would look like was invaluable,” Bergstrom said. “I can’t even imagine what we would have done without Marc and Kim and the team.”
Every other aspect of planning a new school tied back to the budget, Bergstrom said, from enrollment projections to staffing levels.
Now that the school is open, Bluum is also running payroll, accounts payable, and reimbursements, in addition to helping address many compliance matters. Bluum also connected Cardinal Academy to a benefits broker.
Bergstrom said her school has no plans to wean itself off the Bluum financial team services.
“It would be hard to find a single person who could do everything that Bluum does for us,” she said. “As a small school, it just allows us to put more of our money towards student services and teacher support.”
At Future Public School, a larger and more established Boise charter, Director of Operations Lauren Tassos said Bluum team members have helped her learn the ropes since she took the job 18 months ago. They still perform key functions for the school, even as she assumes some of the duties herself.
Tassos said Bluum helped Future Public School set up a tool that allows her to track spending and revenue on a day-to-day basis. “It’s better for us and for them than having to reach out to Bluum before any transaction and asking ‘hey, do we have enough money in our supplies budget to buy more copy paper this month?’” she said.
The Bluum team played a major role in developing Future’s current-year budget, as well as compliance and reporting to the state, Tassos said.
“Is there a world in which I would do all the finances and manage all the budgeting myself? I think that’s probably pretty far out into the future,” she said.
In some cases, Bluum acts as more of a backstop for schools that have in-house finance expertise. At Sage International Network of Schools, two International Baccalaureate schools in Boise and Middleton, Emily Downey, a CPA, serves as director of finance and operations. Downey focuses on big picture strategy, and also supervises a business manager responsible for bookkeeping.
While Sage handles much of its own back office and accounting work, Downey still maintains frequent contact with the Bluum finance team. “Their expertise cannot be matched, no way,” she said.
And finally, from the perspective of Idaho’s largest school auditing firm, the Bluum team is often a difference between a new charter school sinking or swimming.
“The difference between Bluum schools and other charters in terms of finances is huge,” said Kurt Folke, CEO of Quest CPAs of Payette. “Their expertise and assistance is often the difference between a school having enough money to build up reserves and losing money and having to close.”